Atrial Fibrillation

Your heart is actually two pumps that work side-by-side to move blood around your body. The right side of your heart pumps blood to your lungs to receive oxygen.

The left side sends the oxygen-filled blood out to your body.
The familiar lub-dub rhythm of your heart is very organized and controlled by a built-in electrical system.

But some things can cause that electrical system to go haywire. And that can cause a condition called atrial fibrillation.

Causes

If you have atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals in your heart aren't firing properly. This makes the atria, or upper chambers of your heart, quiver instead of contracting as they normally should

And, it can change some of the signals to the ventricles, causing them to contract irregularly too. This causes a fast and irregular heart rhythm that reduces blood flow to your body.

Anyone can get atrial fibrillation, but you are more likely to get it if you've had other problems such as:

  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Recent surgery
  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • Sleep apnea
  • Thyroid problems, or
  • Alcoholism

Symptoms

You may not have symptoms with atrial fibrillation. But, if the ventricles of your heart are affected and can't pump enough blood out to your lungs and body, it can cause symptoms such as:

Heart palpitations or fluttering in the chest, chest pain, a feeling that you can't catch your breath, feeling tired all the time, feeling nervious or anxious, and feeling dizzy or like you want to faint

Some people with atrial fibrillation have occasional spells. This is called intermittent or paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.

Chronic or persistent atrial fibrillation is long lasting.

Over time, atrial fibrillation can weaken your heart and cause heart failure. It can also cause blood to pool in your heart when the atria don't contract correctly.

This increases the risk that a blood clot may form and travel to your brain, causing a stroke.

People with atrial fibrillation are 5 to 7 times more likely to have a stroke than people who don't have it.

Treatment

Some people with atrial fibrillation can get a normal rhythm back without treatment. This happens when the heart "converts" on its own.
If this happens to you, you may not need any other treatment. Other people may need more aggressive treatment.

Which treatment is right for you depends on whether your symptoms are bothersome and how long your heart has been in atrial fibrillation.
Your health care provider will likely recommend blood thinners to reduce your risk for stroke.

You may also need medication or a procedure that helps with rhythm control.

Antiarrhythmic medications slow your heart's ability to send electrical signals.

Electrical cardioversion is a procedure to shock your heart back into rhythm using paddles placed on your chest.

You will need to take blood thinning medication before electrical cardioversion to reduce the risk of having a stroke from a dislodged blood clot.

Other medications can help control your heart rate. These medications include:

Beta blockers or calcium channel blockers, which slow your heart rate, or Digoxin, which slows the electrical currents between the upper and lower chambers of your heart.

And, if these options don't work, your provider may recommend a Maze procedure or catheter ablation to change the way electrical signals move through your heart.

When to Call

Atrial fibrillation can cause serious complications. Call your health care provider if you have:

  • Increased shortness of breath or swelling in your legs
  • Unexpected weight gain
  • Chest pain or the sense that your heart is fluttering, or beating fast or hard
  • Fever of 100.4ºF, or 38ºC, or higher
  • A cough with dark-colored or bloody mucus, or
  • Signs of stroke

Signs of stroke include:

  • Weakness of an arm or leg or one side of the face
  • Difficulty with speech or vision, and
  • Confusion, dizziness or fainting, or extreme drowsiness

Teach your family and friends about the signs of stroke. Have them call your local emergency services or 911 right away if you are having any of these symptoms.

What We Have Learned

Atrial fibrillation may be caused by drinking too much alcohol. True or False? The answer is true. Drinking too much alcohol too often can cause atrial fibrillation.

Sometimes the heart will go back to its normal rhythm on its own. True or False? The answer is true. In some cases, the heart resets itself.

There is no medication to treat atrial fibrillation. True or False? The answer is false. Several medications are available to treat atrial fibrillation.

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